With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I was talking with a friend the other day about marriage, and how hard it is to make a marriage last, how it can seem as futile as trying to make the morning last, or trying to make that first kiss — the one that seemed to go on forever — go on forever.
My friend had just gotten married, so the subject was on her mind. It’s never far from my mind — I’ve been married three times — but during the past year, five couples I know have split up, so the conversation was especially poignant. The death of a marriage is like the death of a person: who my friends were together, their joined spirit, is gone. Memories are left, but they’ll be gone soon, too. How shadowy we become, to those we loved and who loved us: time passes; the distance gathers around us; unforgettable days and nights are forgotten, and go where they go, and are gone.
Married only a few weeks, my friend was naturally hopeful her own marriage would last. But her day had started badly, with an argument that rose from the breakfast table like a rocket out of control. She and her husband had been planning to move to another city, thousands of miles away; it was his idea, to which she had reluctantly agreed. Now she wasn’t so sure. They had discussed it many times. It was no longer a difference of opinion but an issue, which threatened to become an impasse. They were smart enough to know no one really wins an argument like this, but they weren’t smart enough not to argue. Who is? We forget what missiles our words are, how much damage we can cause with one thoughtless comment between the coffee and the toast.
The real issue, my friend said, wasn’t whether or not they’d move. It was, rather, that her husband’s mind was already made up. Thus, she felt powerless, which frightened her, but when she tried to talk to him about her feelings, it frightened him. He was threatened, she said, by her seeming indecision; thus, he felt he couldn’t trust her. She was threatened, she said, because at times like this she felt unloved by him. Still, she wasn’t discouraged.
That’s good, I thought. In the face of such complex feelings, it would be tempting to get discouraged. After all, people throw away computerized watches and radios and tape recorders when they break down because they’re too complicated to fix; it’s cheaper to buy a new one. So, too, are relationships discarded, with the compelling argument that human nature is too complex. We’re certainly more complex than any computer, programmed as we are with contradictory need and longings, childhood memories which shape our adult lives but which are too painful to recall, knowledge and ignorance forever braided. Our understanding of human nature, and of our conditioned ways of thinking and feeling, is so partial that most of us can’t live peacefully with ourselves, let alone with someone else. We swing from wild optimism to silent despair about the world, about relationships. We’re complex beyond imagining: thoughts leap from mind to mind, and who can say why? Love leaps from heart to heart. Something else leaps, too. As Howard Nemerov writes, “Nothing in the universe can travel at the speed of light, they say, forgetful of the shadow’s speed.”
My friend explained that she and her husband were “different personality types” with different fears — her deepest fear, she said, was “loss of love” and his was “annihilation” — and as long as they kept this in mind, they could learn to understand and accept each other.
I said these didn’t sound like different fears so much as different ways of describing the same fear. We all flinch from death and loss; from the things we sweated out as children; from the old griefs that climb the heart like grasses, swept by changing moods and life’s vagrant winds. Fear has a thousand names when it’s ourselves we fear. Convinced of our separateness, we separate ourselves yet further: we create categories which conceal yet more categories, differences, types.
She said I didn’t understand. She described to me a theory of personality set forth by the Russian mystic Gurdjieff, a brilliant if enigmatic teacher who still has a devoted following nearly half a century after his death. In subtle and convincing detail, Gurdjieff elaborated nine different personality types — a precise model based not on guesswork but on a lucid synthesis of universal laws. Each type represented a unique constellation of beliefs, a distinct way of thinking and feeling and moving. Gurdjieff’s insights, she said, had broadened her understanding of how people affect each other for better and for worse.
What could I say? To accept each other’s differences, in a world of enmity and strife, is important. If Gurdjieff, or astrology, or the I Ching, or the Tarot, or any of the countless other methods available today help us to do that, we’re better off. We live in an age in which the proliferation of these traditionally secret teachings is unprecedented. There are, too, the techniques taught by our modern-day gurus, the psychotherapists. Never has so much information — some of it admittedly silly but much of it stunningly sophisticated and wise — been available to ordinary people. And never has the divorce rate been so high.
I don’t mean to sound cynical, or to ridicule the good sense of my friend. Cynicism is certainly out of place: it’s nothing but the cry of the die-hard romantic who clings to his illusions and berates others for not living up to them. After all, who scorns hope and innocence and tender affection more than the lost soul whose need to be cared for is so great? Who scoffs at marriage more bitterly than the man or woman who a few years ago swore an undying love?
No, I only mean to suggest that a theory is a theory and living is something else. My friends who split up this year had their theories, too. They struggled to understand life, too. When the facts didn’t fit the theories, they revised the theories. They searched for the missing clue, for the theory that would explain why none of the theories worked. Eventually, they had to ignore the facts or abandon the theories — a painful choice, since lies break the heart, and so does the truth.
I have my theories, revised countless times since I first walked down the aisle, nearly twenty years ago, in top hat and tails. How preposterous I looked; but it was, after all, the style — like sentimentalizing love and making a fantasy of my wife; like ignoring the astonishing power over our lives of our parents’ unlived lives, the ineluctable pull of the past; like our shameless obedience to traditional roles. I mean, my wife worked and did the housework, while I worked and thought about important things. I never washed a dish.
Am I the same man who tonight, even as I clean up after dinner, is thinking about what to make my wife for lunch? I’ve found the splendor in the ordinary. What a lucky man! My soul isn’t out there in the sky, or in the vast sweep of my thoughts, but here, fresh and close by — in the light the small lamp throws on the shadows of the kitchen and on the old, scarred cutting board and on the slices of bread. . . . It’s a perfect moment, dark and suspended like the pause between breaths. Norma is across the room. I look at her. How real and mysterious she is, in her delights and her sorrows; how real and how haunted — lover, stranger, friend. . . .
But moments come and go, like theories, like Norma and I in our lives too busy by half. We’re in and out the door, she to the hospita1 by six, me to the office before that. Sometimes days go by without any real intimacy, without either of us bringing an unfamiliar mood to the table, a question to our certainty, a sweet new cunning to the bed. Ironically, we strive for a life together — for the ordered virtues, for our share of bliss — but we have to take risks with each other, risk the marriage itself, for a life together to make sense.
At least, that’s the theory. Another has to do with telling the truth, always; and another with the redemptive power of forgiveness; and another with the need to accept. Unfortunately, when the comforting illusion of a comforting love is torn away, the theories are forgotten. When I’m tired or bruised or angry, my refuge isn’t truth and forgiveness. If the world doesn’t feed me, if things go wrong, if I’ve spent my day in the shallows of myself, the pull of the lie is strong. My mind, not my heart, speaks for me then, like a shyster lawyer full of empty words. I wink at the jury. I smile at the judge. I forget that the verdict came in on this pretending long ago.
If I start a conversation with Norma by disguising what I feel, I usually end up scolding her, for holding back what she feels. This is like Reagan frothing over Qaddafi’s duplicity. Fortunately, I don’t do this often; when I do, my wife reminds me we’re pledged to something higher than diplomacy. But what happens when neither of us is sure of what we feel, when the heart is a distant land and we’re nearsighted with the desire to please? What good are theories when you can’t tell the loneliness from the boredom and the boredom from the lust? The shadow lengthens; it gets hard to see.
I was sick the other night, feeling like a cheap print of myself in bad colors, red for my eyes and nose and throat, gray and melancholy for the rest of me. It was chilly, but I was too weary to build a fire. Norma, in her third year of medical school, was at the hospital ministering to other sick people — an irony that, in my fevered state, held an undue fascination for me. Hadn’t I made my peace with her medical career? But now I was ill, and resentful that she wasn’t here to care for me. My throat burned each time I swallowed; I couldn’t concentrate on my book and there was nothing on TV. Heavy and sad, I drifted in and out of sleep, wanting something sleep couldn’t give to me.
I wanted to feel cared for, but I didn’t know what to do for myself. It’s an old story. I see illness — amazingly — as a sign of weakness. Men in particular, I think, suffer from this slander; it makes sickness a kind of failure and “caring for yourself’ an empty ritual, devoid of generosity. More generally, I’m not much of a friend when the friend in need is me. When I’m sick or tired or discouraged, I look inside myself for comfort, and a scornful ghost looks back at me. It’s a look I can’t bear, from the depths of the past, and like a frightened child I run from it, to a woman, to rescue me. Wife, mother, saviour, her life becomes the screen on which I project my need. Blinded by my littleness, I want to see nothing but her great love for me.
When Norma finally got home, I was sullen and unfriendly, and spurned the affection she offered me. Nothing she said or did was quite enough. Just as intractable as my weepy eyes and stuffy nose was my dour mood. In bed, we kept to our separate sides. Oh the dark ruin of a bed when you go to sleep angrily.
Up before my wife the next morning, up from darkness and a forgiving sleep, I saw the harm I’d done the night before as clearly as if it were outside me, like the trees, the sky, the light pink as a wound from the east. I’d wake her soon, and tell her I was sorry; we’d talk, and as we always somehow do, we’d make our peace.
Fragile and strong by turns, we slip in and out of mercy. The light shines on us, and behind us the darkness lengthens. Yes, the light rains down on every blade and leaf. The joy is real. And so is the grief.